December 11, 2020 – Blacks have been fighting for the right to vote for over 200 years in the United States. White politicians and racists have been trying to take away, or at least diminish that right for just as long. This documentary film is about the history of that power struggle and how it is playing out today.
The old lions of the voting rights movement, Martin Luther King, John Lewis and Andrew Young, are of course mentioned in the film, but the real star is Stacey Abrams, the former candidate for Governor of Georgia and famed “get out the vote” organizer who delivered Georgia for President-elect Joe Biden, and other Democrats in 2020.
I keep up with the news, so I knew about Stacey Abrams, but I had no idea just how impressive she is personally, her intellectual prowess in particular. Abrams is a big part of this movie, but it does cover the history of the struggle to expand the right to vote.
In the early days of the United States only six percent of the population had the right to vote, according to the film. If you were not white, male, and an owner of property, you did not have the right to vote. The right to vote was greatly expanded following the civil war, first to black men, and in the 20th Century, to women.
Following Reconstruction, and the withdrawal of federal troops from the Old South, white politicians there devised a number of laws, such as poll taxes, literacy tests and voter I.D. laws, which reduced black voter registration from 67 percent to three percent in some areas, according to the movie.
Reconstruction (1865–1877) was the heyday of voting rights in the south, and remarkable things were achieved in this period, such as universal primary education. Reconstruction is a little known and greatly misunderstood part of American history. For more on Reconstruction, please see the remarkable four-part PBS Reconstruction series hosted by Henry Louis Gates on YouTube.
The documentary also covers the battle for the right of women to vote, called the Women's Suffrage movement, noting that the women who fought that battle pioneered the use of nonviolent resistance, years before Ghandi and Martin Luther King used the same techniques in their own political struggles.
The well-known civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s, culminating in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits racial discrimination in voting, is mentioned in the film. A direct connection between then and now in the film is Stacey Abrams address to a huge gathering marking the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
The landmark 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder removed key voting rights provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights act. As a direct result of that decision, thousands of polling places were closed in the south, restrictive voter I.D. laws were implemented, some within hours of the announcement of the Shelby County v. Holder decision. Just in time for the 2020 presidential election Florida enacted a fee that certain voters, mostly Democrats, would have to pay before being allowed to vote. This is a bit like the old Poll Tax.
The movie also tackles the issue of gerrymandering, the practice of drawing up voting district boundaries in such a way as to dilute the power of certain voting blocks, including blacks and other minorities. This has been used to ensure minority rule over the majority of voters. For instance, Republicans are able to lock up 60 percent of seats in the Wisconsin House with only 48 percent of the vote.
Then there is the practice of doing massive purges of voter registration rolls, which often seems to benefit the political party in power at the expense of the other party, particularly the “use it or lose it” laws in some states that cause inactive voters to be removed from the registration lists. A massive voter purge in Florida helped George Bush win that state by just 537 votes in the 2000 Presidential Election.
Several of these voting suppression methods were at play in the 2018 election in which Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp ran against Stacey Abrams. Kemp had the advantage of being in charge of the election, a situation that would be illegal in some other countries, it was argued in the film. The election was a mess, with long lines, overwhelmed and under-trained election workers, incorrect voter rolls, and election machines that broke down. Abrams lost in a close, questionable election result.
As bad as all that is, it has just gotten worse since this movie was released. Now, the Republicans have gone beyond strategies to prevent minorities from voting. Now, they have moved on to try to stop votes already cast from being counted, and further, to nullify votes that have already been cast, counted and certified. In for a penny, in for a pound when it comes to opposing democracy. A lawsuit filed in early December by the State of Texas against the states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Georgia and Pennsylvania, seeks to do just that, to nullify President Trump's loss in the 2020 presidential election. President Trump, 126 House Republicans and 18 Republican state attorneys general all signed on to the targeted vote nullification effort.
The lawsuit failed, but this is not the end of this fundamentally anti-democratic movement in the United States. Because scores of millions of voters believe social media-fueled fact-free conspiracy rumors that the election was stolen from Trump, our democracy is in critical condition. As Lincoln Project founder Steve Schmidt said, we are now one election away from an autocracy.
It is easy enough to blame Donald Trump for this problem, but he is not the cause of it. He is just a symptom. He didn't invent racism, or vote suppression, or the politics of division, or adopting strategies of winning by any means necessary. He simply took advantage of those things. He's not the first politician to do so, but his use of social media, aided by the Russians, has helped him push this trend to greater extremes. It comes as no surprise then, that President Trump eventually found it acceptable to incite mob violence in pursuit of political victory.
Looking at the history of voter suppression by both Democrats and Republicans over the years, there has been a steady progression of the amount of anti-democracy in politics, of a belief by our leaders that the great masses of people cannot be trusted with self-rule. The problem with that is that when it becomes acceptable to disenfranchise some people, it can eventually lead to the disenfranchisement of the entire population.
This movie makes a very convincing argument that the right to vote needs to be protected, and that democracy itself is under siege. Voting should be made easier, not harder. Gerrymandering, targeted voter purges and other non-democratic practices should be regulated to prevent the kinds of abuses that happen all too often. This film rates a B.
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